Why is the London Police Service solving fewer crimes? The answer is complicated
The police brass blames low staffing levels and 'overwhelming demand for service'
The London Police Service (LPS) is struggling to solve crimes at a greater frequency since the pandemic, the law enforcement agency's own data suggests, as clearance rates for both violent crimes and property crimes have fallen sharply in the last five years.
The percentage of violent crimes that were cleared, which is defined as an incident solved by arrest or other means, has fallen by a fifth, from 74 per cent in 2018, to 58 per cent in 2022, data shows.
Clearance rates for property crimes, which make up the bulk of all crimes reported to the police, including theft, breaking and entering, and vandalism have fallen by about a third, from 22 per cent in 2018 to 14 per cent in 2022.
The LPS said a senior staff member was unavailable for an interview last week and Tuesday.
Police saddled by low staff, overwhelming demand
In an emailed statement written Thursday, Deputy Chief Trish McIntyre said the drop in LPS clearance rates is due to "multiple factors," including low staffing levels, "overwhelming demand for service" and a surge in high-priority calls that have taken on a "notable increase in severity and volatility."
MacIntyre noted in her email that response times for lower priority calls, such as property crimes, increased by 557 per cent, or more than six times, since 2021. However, she did not provide the raw data police used to arrive at that figure.
She wrote that the agency's limited number of officers must prioritize calls where public safety is at risk, or where a major crime is in progress, which can cause delays in responding to lower-priority calls.
Saving a life and responding to provide first aid, I think most people would understand that's a higher priority.- LPA president Paulo Domingues
"This delay can limit the ability to solve a crime due to loss of evidence, cooperation with witnesses, etc. When police response is more immediate, there is often a greater likelihood that those responsible for a crime are still nearby, therefore the probability of the accused person(s) being apprehended by police increases."
The abundance of cheap and highly potent fentanyl in the city is another factor that frequently keeps officers from responding to lower priority calls, according to Paulo Domingues, a 24-year veteran of frontline policing and the president of the London Police Association (LPA), the union representing the agency's 800 officers and civilian staff.
"Fire, ambulance and us, we all respond to these serious medical complaints," he said. "Somebody might have a car broken into or a shed broken into and, not to diminish that, but you do have to drop everything."
"Saving a life and responding to provide first aid, I think most people would understand that's a higher priority."
With so many high-stress calls, police officers are more likely to suffer from mental illness. A 2018 study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found more than a third of police officers suffered from active PTSD.
Domingues said that, at any given time, not all of the city's approximately 500 frontline officers are not psychologically healthy enough to work because of the often gruelling and traumatic nature of daily policing.
"We go to some of these horrific scenes. We're dealing with horrific things. There's there's there isn't a backup person to take someone's role when they've just gone through a very traumatic call."
Crime experts say there is no simple explanation
Criminologists who study policing also told CBC News there is no simple explanation for the falling clearance rates.
Rather, they are a reflection of changes in policing over the last several decades, including more sophisticated investigations, a greater push for accountability from officers and changes in the justice system itself.
One of those changes includes a trend toward lower incarceration rates since the 1990s especially when it comes to suspects on remand, which can make it more difficult for police to locate the "usual suspects," the idea that a small number of repeat offenders are often guilty of the majority of crimes.
Laura Huey, a professor of criminology at Western University whose research focuses on how evidence and data improve policing, said 30 years ago, police often had to look no further than their own cells to catch a suspect.
"A lot of people that were subsequently charged for serious violent crimes were easily identified because they were already in the jail cell.
"Now we have much more people out on various forms of release," she said. "If those people are out without proper supervision, they're out committing more harm in the community."
COVID-19 pandemic marked big changes
Rates of incarceration across the country and provincially, made a particularly steep drop during the COVID-19 pandemic, as courts weighed the risk of someone getting sick in jail against the need to guard public safety.
Those drops, which happened between 2020 and 2021, seem to coincide with a similar decline in clearances for violent and property crimes by the LPS.
However, when it comes to public priorities, which include drugs, homicide and guns and gangs, the LPS has very high clearance rates, which suggests law enforcement is funnelling its limited resources into areas the public sees as crucial, according to Joe Michalski, a professor of criminology at King's University College at Western University.
"We do have higher clearance rates, much higher clearance rates typically for violent crime because, as you might expect, that's a number one police priority."
For example, clearance rates for homicide is nearly 100 per cent from 2017 to 2022, according to Statistics Canada data. Clearance for crimes involving controlled substances, identified by the public as the number one priority by the public in an LPS November 2022 survey, was consistently in the 90th percentile in the last five years, according to federal data.
On the other hand, Michalski said, the contrasting low clearance rates for property crimes, which ranked second as a priority for the public in the November 2022 survey, suggests the city law enforcement agency also appears to be understaffed, under-resourced and overwhelmed.
"I think the police would certainly agree with that," he said. "The police are, I would argue, chronically underfunded."
When it comes to feelings of public safety and satisfaction, the LPS rates high, according to the November 2022 public survey. The vast majority of people reported feeling safe during the day on the street, while over half reported feeling safe at night.
In terms of satisfaction, the report said the vast majority of people see the service as reliable and trustworthy, but only half of respondents thought the service gave all citizens equal levels of service.